Eric Kickert (40) once studied Aerospace Engineering, but now helps Peecho go sky-high in his role as CEO. Blending elements of coaching and engineering into his own leadership style, he describes himself as an extreme pragmatist. He discusses gear-grinding bureaucracy, start-up struggles and unseized print opportunities.
After secondary school, I was faced with a choice: to either pick up an arts subject, or study engineering. So I enrolled at Delft University of Technology to study Aerospace Engineering. After my graduation, I ended up at a strategy consulting firm. Then I moved on to a company that launched start-ups. That’s when Peecho showed up on my radar.
I’m an extreme pragmatist. I do things that help clients make money. Stuff that doesn’t directly contribute to that end is fluff and nonsense, in my opinion.
To give you an idea of my pragmatism: I once went to an on-site manager training. After taking a leadership style test, we were to stand in a certain area according to our test results. When the reviewer came by my area, he said: “That’s funny, usually this spot is empty. The type of manager that fits this description thinks this kind of training is a waste of time.” I told him that that was exactly how I felt. I was only there because another appointment had been canceled.
In practice, I help implement Peecho’s solutions with clients to get them up and running and lead the team to improve our products, mostly by coaching team members. And of course, a million other things your typical start-up CEO does, ranging from taking care of invoices to fixing the Wi-Fi router.
I approach leadership through a funny mix of coaching and engineering logic. I’m convinced that I’m working with professionals, who know their job better than me, so I don’t think I need to tell someone how to do things. That’s my coaching side; I look at the bigger picture and guide my people through bigger issues. My Management Team once even said they could use some more critique from me.
My engineering side shows in how I constantly think about effort-benefits: how much an effort costs versus the value it brings. If I feel something doesn’t directly work to Peecho's advantage, I have no qualms about throwing it in the trash. I don’t sugarcoat things and get straight to the point, if I have a certain idea in mind of how something should be done. This offers clarity for everyone involved.
"I'll admit I lost a few hours of sleep over it"
When I started, Peecho was in troubled waters. Its founders had created a technically brilliant solution, but needed a fresh pair of eyes to scale it further. We had tons of very creative but small accounts selling beautiful stuff, but were difficult to scale profitably.
Back then, online customers were in the process of moving from keeping a personal blog to posting on more commercially active apps and platforms. We said to each other: “The internet has changed, we need to change with it.” So we shifted our focus towards this new market. We worked really hard with what we had, turning every dime. It was a really cool time, because I could help people find the right path to do things.
This was an atypical route for a start-up. Usually, start-ups have a convenient amount in the bank from investors. That was different with Peecho. They were less than 5 FTEs and had trouble making ends meet. Maybe I was a little too optimistic when I said: “We’ll fix it in about 6 months.”
It took a little longer than that, and I admit I lost quite a few hours of sleep over it. But it makes me all the more proud of what we’ve achieved so far, using what we have. We’re not your typical Amsterdam start-up backed by a huge investment budget. We did it all on our own, and we simply couldn’t afford mistakes. We had to weigh every strategic decision. That has kept us focused, and I intend to keep pursuing the same line of approach. We’re now a healthy scale-up with 16 people on board.
Somebody called us the ‘print button of the internet’, and I still think that is a very strong proposition. Even when we now aim at a very different type of client, it holds. We provide a simple button that allows our clients to print in the most sustainable way possible worldwide, through a range of customizable modules and a worldwide network.
Print solution companies usually offer a one-size-fits-all approach. In contrast, Peecho’s modules can be combined into a fully customized print solution that works within your company’s existing design and print routines.
A print market segment in which I see a lot of room for improvement is with corporations. I’ve been in a larger consulting business myself, and it happened often enough that we sent large FedEx boxes full of softcovers from Iowa in the US to, say, Hamburg in Germany. Ridiculously inefficient! Why don’t you assign a local German printer to just produce the precise order you need there? You’ll cut production and transporting costs and emissions, speed up delivery, and prevent waste.
But many people in corporations are evaluated based on how well they perform their tasks, not for thinking about innovations that improve or change their routines. Not everyone questions whether it could be done more effectively, and many corporations simply have no idea how much they spend on print. Bureaucracy stifles agility.
Plus, they aren’t start-up spotters, so they simply don’t know our solution exists until we reach out and show them.
“Bureaucracy stifles agility”
Despite these challenges, we still believe in focussing on corporations. They need print, but things can be done a lot more effectively in all aspects of their print routines. With almost no investment, they can massively reduce their production and transporting costs and emissions, circumvent customs and border hassle and reduce waste, while keeping full control of their brand assets.
It’s hardly any trouble for them to implement our solutions. We’ve mastered the whole implementation process and can take it out of their hands. Just say yes, and let us do the rest. They can easily switch it off again if they don’t like it, and go back to their old habits. What’s the worst that could happen?
I’ve learned to trust my gut instinct. When I started out, I was still uncertain whether my analytical profile would fit in the hectic world of start-ups. But I quickly learned that I had a nose for added value. We’d run tests to see whether a new proposal would work or not, and I often saw my initial expectations confirmed.
My second biggest learning point is how much you can achieve with people who really put their mind and soul into something versus an army of conformist desk workers. I think I’ve gained a good understanding of the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Back when I started out as a consultant, I used to think there was some kind of formula: “This project will need X people for Y weeks.” In more traditional organizations, that would often amount to twenty people needing half a year, doing a lot of things very slowly. It’s happened on more than one occasion that the organization would eventually even pull the plug on the project because of severe delays or mistakes.
I learnt that we can likely do such a project in weeks, with only two people who put their backs into it. This also explains why our team of just 16 can achieve so much more than many bigger companies. If you’re laser focused you can really move X times faster.
What’s a surprising personal trait or hobby of yours that people won’t expect from you?
Most people who know me will expect the unexpected from me. I’m quite open to trying out new things. I’m told I’m really chatty, so the team laughed when I announced I was going on a week-long silent retreat. Yet I don’t think they were all that shocked.
Peecho is a very flat and informal organization. The majority of the team hangs out together in their free time. After lunch, we play a game of Super Bomberman, and every year, we go on a Peecho trip. It’s a lot of fun, but it can also be a bit chaotic. I believe it's normal for a rapidly growing company like ours to keep reinventing itself.
That’s something that needs to be in your DNA if you want to work at Peecho: you’re great at structuring information, but you can handle change yourself. We’re looking for opinionated people, even beyond the scope of their job description.
“We’re looking for opinionated people, beyond the scope of their job description”
Peecho’s modular approach can be rolled out across several markets we haven’t entered yet. Those modules we talked about earlier? I can think of ten or so more like that. Each market we explore has its own unique challenges and inefficient print ways.
We’re a software company that’s all about efficiency. I truly believe we should always be able to run this with a small, focused team. When Peecho finds a proper balance between innovation and execution, or, in other words, when the beast can sustain itself, then I think that’s the end of my era, and I’ll make way for someone who helps Peecho throughout the next phase. Until then, there’s still a lot of ground to cover and plenty of room for growth.